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We live in a world of constant change. “Adapt or die” is really not an overstatement of what’s required to stay resilient and grow as individuals and as organizations.
The secret, if it can even be called that, is to infuse our workplace systems—and humanity itself—with happiness.
Jenn Lim has made this pursuit her life’s work. She’s CEO of a company called Delivering Happiness that she co-founded with Tony Hsieh, the late CEO of Zappos.com. The company’s purpose is to champion science-based happiness, passion and purpose in the workplace.
Drawing on her decades of consulting work in culture and strategy, Jenn has developed a practical “how-to” framework for more sustainable workplaces that benefit employees while improving engagement, performance and profits. She shares that framework in Beyond Happiness: How Authentic Leaders Prioritize Purpose and People for Growth and Impact.
Rodger Dean Duncan: Happiness as a business model can sustain a company, you say, but the business model must start with the sustainable happiness of the individual. What must leaders do to create and maintain “greenhouse” conditions where happiness can thrive?
Jenn Lim: Now, more than ever, leaders are getting real within themselves first, in order to get real about sustaining their companies. As leaders, being self-aware and answering the hard questions of what’s (a) internally in our control (e.g. Purpose + Values within ourselves and our organizations) and (b) external that we can’t control (e.g. a pandemic, recession, technology/AI) are the basis of how we can ground ourselves and prioritize what’s most important, no matter what’s happening in the world. From there, we can better adapt to create thriving ecosystems for ourselves, teams, organizations, and communities.
With this base to keep greenhouse conditions in place, the individual has the capacity to impact the long-term sustainability of a company, no matter what role they’re in.
Duncan: You say people can adapt to unknowns by applying Purpose + Values to navigate the future. Give us an example of how that approach works in creating happiness.
Lim: In 2015, prior to Covid, we worked with Northwell Health, one of the top largest healthcare systems in the US. We helped them create a Culture of C.A.R.E. (Connectedness, Awareness, Respect, and Empathy) in measurable, accountable ways. Their staff was rewarded and recognized when they lived by these values, and they prioritized patients and families in its service.
While most healthcare workers experienced extreme levels of burnout, uncertainty, and overwhelm, the systemic changes Northwell Health made earned them a rank on the 2021 Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work for list and placed them as #2 on the best large hospital system to work in the US. By creating a culture to support people’s authentic selves, a group of nurses across different hospitals created a chorus group that sang at America’s Got Talent and got the Golden Buzzer.
By committing to its values of C.A.R.E. for each other and their patients, their staff reconnected to their purpose before Covid, and Northwell created a culture of resilience and happiness during one of the most difficult times this generation has ever seen.
Duncan: During the Covid pandemic, many people have discovered that they are better able to adapt than they might have guessed. What effect does that kind of self-awareness (lessons learned during a pandemic) have on a person’s happiness?
Lim: It’s been amazing to see when people realize how adaptable they really are. By realizing their resilience, people get a sense of control and autonomy. Because they can control what they can, and adapt to what they can’t, people show up differently.
They’re waking up knowing they’re actively answering questions they didn’t ask before—because there wasn’t enough time in the day or they had “more important” things to do.
Covid-19 isn’t just a virus, it’s nature’s way of holding up a mirror for all of us. It’s made us question what’s most meaningful and important. And the takeaway is that we shouldn’t let a “good pandemic” go to waste. The silver lining is that it’s forcing function to ground our lives, wake up knowing we’re spending time more aligned with our Purpose + Values, and we feel more connected in meaningful ways.
Now it’s up to us to think/say/do (in alignment) to make that happen.
Duncan: What societal influences seem to impact people’s happiness negatively, and how can people either avoid or neutralize those influences?
Lim: The impact of “societal influences” is so broad these days, especially with the hyper-connection we’re living in. The social media posts we’re clicking on bring us to a page about mental health, politics, or miraculous animal videos, then land us on an ad of how to optimize our brain, live until we’re 100, or help the millions of refugees in the world. Then it becomes another Choose Your Own Adventure the next day.
But when we ground ourselves—with self-awareness and authenticity—in our personal Purpose + Values, and choose who we surround ourselves in positive ways—with givers, not takers—we can get to a steady place of knowledge and psychological safety while living out our legacies now, instead of when we’re gone.
Duncan: You say the most sustainable form of happiness is enjoyed by people who have a strong sense of purpose—who are part of something bigger than themselves. What steps must a person take to attain that level of happiness?
Lim: The first step is not to overthink what “purpose” means. Some get daunted by defining a purpose for themselves (and therefore the company and people they lead). Purpose is meant to evolve.
The second is to understand your values. You’d be surprised by how many people think they know their values until they ask themselves the hard questions. As an example, if one of your top values is family, ask family members if they think you value them as a priority. The compass is one thing, the clock (time) you’re truly present with them is another.
The third is, from time to time, revisit (1) your talents, (2) your light—what energizes you or gets you angry, and (3) your intended impact on the world. Together, those three things make up your evolutionary purpose statement.
And the last, most important (because it might be your last) question is to ask if you’re living for your resume, bank account, or eulogy.
If it’s for the latter, it’s more likely that you’re actively living the legacy— our purpose—that’s bigger than yourself.
Duncan: Programs to promote diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) seem to be all the rage these days, and there’s no doubt they address issues that deserve attention. But some people sincerely believe such programs risk rewarding some at the expense of others—when, ironically, unequal treatment is a core rationale for such programs. From a happiness perspective, what’s the key to operating DEIB programs in a way that genuinely promotes mutual understanding, respect, acceptance, and, yes, happiness?
Lim: The short answer is communication, with honesty, empathy, and respect.
From DEIB and happiness perspectives, the biggest “win” isn’t about being right. It’s about empathizing with the underdog in the room, leading the conversation, and creating the space to make sure everyone feels heard and understood.
That’s where communication with honesty, empathy, and respect play towards positive outcomes. It’s also when encouraging people to be true to their (weird) unique selves shine lights you haven’t seen before—in diversity of thought, innovation, and progress.
This column was first published by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.